ROME — Italian dramas have long largely replaced Hollywood movies and minis in primetime slots on Mediaset and RAI. But while local scripted content quadrupled in volume over the past 15 years, and as ratings for local skeins soared, the level of originality and overall quality failed to follow suit. That, however, is dramatically changing.

Put another way: Since 1994, three papal biopics and two skeins both dedicated to the life of the same saint are among the country’s top 10 all-time ratings champs — which makes the recent arrival of Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Italia paybox on the country’s production scene all the more sensational.

Sky has been spawning minis about heroin-dealing gangsters (“Crime Novel”), satanic sects (“Satan’s Shadow”), a porn star biopic (“Moana”) and “The Monster of Florence” mini about Italy’s worst serial sex killer.

That’s not to say the country’s generalist webs aren’t also making bolder, and better, TV dramas these days, albeit within the constraints of catering to more-mainstream auds.

Pubcaster RAI, which prompted Italy’s fiction proliferation in the early 1990s and makes the hugely popular Sicily-set crimer “Montalbano” (which played on BBC4 in Blighty), is tackling an offbeat social issue with a high-profile mini in the works about groundbreaking Italo psychiatrist Franco Basaglia.

Basaglia, believing that most mentally unstable people should not be locked up, drafted a key law eliminating terrible conditions in the country’s mental institutions. The relatively radical RAI mini “Once Upon a Time There Was a City of Lunatics” is produced by Claudia Mori, who also is shepherding a high-profile, six-part series on the ravages of prostitution and violence against women called “A Body for Sale,” to be helmed by auteurs Liliana Cavani, Margarethe Von Trotta and Marco Pontecorvo.

“Certainly in recent years, TV fiction in Italy has improved, especially in terms of the thematic choices that broadcasters are now willing to make,” says Mori, who ascribes the change to the fact that slightly edgier shows are reaping stellar ratings even on RAI, which traditionally plays to the country’s older demographic.

Mediaset, which prides itself on being more popular with the somewhat younger auds that are key to advertisers, is reacting to the constraints dictated by the current advertising downturn by cutting production costs, but not its fiction output.

“Fiction remains key to our programming strategy,” vows Mediaset head of drama Giancarlo Scheri, specifying that his mandate has expanded to also making homegrown skeins for the web’s growing Mediaset Premium pay TV operation.

Furthermore, Mediaset has been thinking bigger since 2007, when it acquired a controlling stake in Endemol, though Endemol is managed independently.

“We are no longer interested in making dramas just for our local audiences — we want them to be suitable for export,” Scheri says.

In a clear indication of its mandate, Mediaset’s upcoming fiction slate is toplined by a two-part adaptation of Ken Follett’s biological-terrorism thriller “Whiteout,” being co-produced with German web ZDF.

As for cost-cutting, Scheri is particularly proud of inspirational “Fame”-like telepic “Non smettere di sognare” (Don’t Stop Dreaming), Mediaset’s first entirely inhouse, and thus lower-cost, production shot in hi-def digital that in June reaped a strong 23% share on its flagship Canale 5 station.

All told, Mediaset in 2009 will be pumping $325 million into some 260 hours of primetime fiction, while RAI has earmarked $380 million to make about 40 skeins of various formats. Like Mediaset, RAI also has no intention of reducing its output and is actively pursuing exports to cover a portion of its costs.

The ongoing Italo fiction ferment comes as the country makes the switch from analog to digital terrestrial television, prompting a proliferation of new channels, which “will also bring about a big push in terms of fostering fresher content,” says Rome Fiction Fest artistic topper Steve Della Casa.

Tip Sheet
What: Rome Fiction Festival
When: July 6-11
Where: Rome
Honoree: Kenneth Branagh, Lifetime Achievment Award
Web: romafictionfest.it